Growing up during the last days of the British colonial presence in Egypt, Leila Ahmed’s childhood is marked by a collision of cultures. Among Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Egyptians from a similar class background in school, young Ahmed considers it quite normal to grow up speaking English or French and being called by the anglicized name “Lily” in school. Ahmed lives in Cairo, at the crossroads of spiritual hubs, ancient sites, and modern sprawl, in a beautiful house known as Ain Shams. Her father is an esteemed engineer who, as chairman of the Nile Water Control Board, had run into trouble with the government for opposing their plan to build the High Dam on ecological grounds. Though her father’s concerns about the fate of the Nile River will ultimately be born out by the facts, his opposition to the government’s grand improvement project will haunt him for years to come. Later, he will be harassed by authorities and have his bank account frozen.
As a young child, Ahmed is very attached to Nanny, her Croatian governess. Nanny is a deeply religious Christian and tells Ahmed stories of angels and the supernatural. Ahmed has a more conflicted relationship with her mother. Ahmed aspires to be a professional and views her mother with contempt for not working. Later, when Ahmed’s father falls ill with chronic pneumonia, Ahmed will come to value her mother’s dedication more, as well as the strength of the bond between her parents. One of Ahmed’s closest childhood friends is Gina, a neighbor girl and the daughter of Italian parents. Gina’s older brother, Freddy, subjects Ahmed to brutal and sexual games when she is around eight years old, and when Ahmed’s mother finds out about it, she beats her and takes her to a doctor to be examined. In the aftermath of this event, Ahmed is forbidden to play outside, even with Gina, and is subjected to her mother’s disdain, furthering the rift between mother and daughter.
Ahmed’s view of Islam is shaped through the time she spends at her mother’s childhood home of Zatoun, in Cairo, where Ahmed is surrounded by a rich and engaging community of women. While listening to her mother, grandmother, and other women converse, Ahmed learns about Islam as being a generous and pacifistic faith. Though she receives no direct religious instruction from these women, and her father has decided not to send her to an Islamic school, Ahmed nonetheless comes to appreciate the oral, living tradition of Islam, which, in contrast to the rigid, authoritative Islam that is handed down in texts, encompasses many interpretations. As much as she recognizes the positive force that this humane form of Islam has manifested in her family’s life, she also recognizes the powerlessness of her mother and grandmother in the society they live in. Ahmed’s grandmother, for instance, has for years been mourning the suicide of her son Fuad, a tragedy she blames on her husband’s disapproval of Fuad. A similar fate befell Grandmother’s daughter Aida, who committed suicide after being unable to secure permission for a divorce from an unhappy marriage through the stern figure of Grandfather. Because of these tragedies, the estate of Zatoun always seems to have a pall of gloom over it in young Ahmed’s eyes.
Ahmed attends a British school in the suburbs of Cairo and prefers play to work, though her test scores and voracious appetite for books help her move ahead quickly in school. Jews and Muslims at the school are excused from the daily Christian prayers, and that’s how Ahmed meets and befriends Joyce, a Jewish girl in her grade. Ahmed is encouraged to skip a grade, but her academic ambitions are tempered by the school’s English headmaster, Mr. Price, who accuses her of plagiarizing her own well-written essays. Ahmed likewise finds her English teachers discouraging of her ambitions of pursuing science or mathematics. In school, Ahmed studies the history, geography, and flora and fauna of Europe, while learning little about that of her own country. Still, Ahmed isn’t completely insulated from the politics of her day. She recognizes the growing influence of a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands in opposition to colonialism and Western influence in the Middle East.
Ahmed is soon headed to Cambridge, England, to study literature, a place she reveres as an intellectual wonderland and the embodiment of all the things she remembers reading in English books as a child—forests, fog, turrets, and towers. Here, Ahmed finds a different kind of community of women in teachers like Mrs. Madge and Miss Bradbrook, and with friends like Veena, an Indian woman who shares some of Ahmed’s feelings of displacement. At Cambridge, Ahmed experiences a more genteel form of racism, a feeling of being lumped together with all the people who aren’t part of the white British establishment, no matter what their race or cultural background. Between her undergraduate and graduate days, Ahmed returns to Egypt to find it totally changed. Her father is gravely ill, and she can tell that her mother had suffered the burden of her father’s illness as well as persecution via Nasser’s increasingly repressive regime. Upon returning to Cambridge to begin graduate studies, Ahmed meets Alan, the man she will marry and eventually divorce.
During her graduate studies, Ahmed yearns for a place in the academy for the voices from the margins—blacks, women, and people from the third world. Toward the end of her graduate student days, Ahmed begins to suffer from a mysterious illness. After several frustrating visits with different doctors, Ahmed is finally diagnosed with sarcodosis, a chronic autoimmune disease. Ahmed reads Edward Said’s Orientalism while trying to sort out her place as an Egyptian woman in the West. After leaving Cambridge, Ahmed accepts a teaching position in Abu Dhabi and joins a committee to help reform education throughout the United Arab Emirates. Recognizing the unique qualities of this “Gulf Arabic” culture helps her to re-examine the implications of her own “Egyptian Arabic” identity and her place in the larger Arab world. Ahmed moves to the United States and finds that the atmosphere in women’s studies departments in the 1980s is not exactly hospitable to the viewpoints of women from other cultures. However, she does find her new environment exciting and intellectually stimulating, and even as she endeavors to make a contribution to her the world of ideas in her new home, she never turns her back on her Egyptian heritage.
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